Mah Shlomcha?

It’s the simplest of questions: “Mah shlomcha?—How are you?” But when your country is at war, how can you give the usual answer, “Baruch Hashem, hakol beseder—Thank G-d, everything is okay”? In fact, at our recent annual shul Shabbaton, an entire session was devoted to a discussion of possible responses, given the situation. 

My wife Ceil and I were in Teaneck, New Jersey, on October 7, having gone to spend Sukkot there with family. We returned home to Jerusalem, as scheduled, about a week later, but we came back to a different Israel. When we left—despite all the political turmoil—we had been living through one of the most fortunate times for Jews in all of our thousands of years of history, in our own land, strong and confident. It’s going to be a long time until we will feel that way again. 

Since Jerusalem was the target of very few Hamas rocket attacks (although Iran did try to kill us one night), life here has been pretty normal. But all along there’s been an underlying nervousness and even a sense of foreboding that things could get worse.* At first, we were hesitant to go out to enjoy ourselves because of the war, but then we realized that living a normal life is how you play your part on the home front, that you can’t let the enemy crush your spirit or make you cower in fright. Not only that, but the local cafes and other merchants need our support in order to survive. 

It has been difficult to balance this normality with the constant reminders of the war. The TV and radio news programs focus on the stories of soldiers who have given their lives, and on how their bereaved families are coping; on the fate of the hostages, whose faces are on posters on every Jerusalem street corner, and on the trauma of their families; on the difficulties facing the many thousands who were displaced from their homes near the borders; and on the scourge of antisemitism around the world. 

All this serves to reinforce the idea that people in this country really do care for each other. A distraught mother was interviewed on TV while waiting in the ER for news of her son who had been seriously wounded in Gaza. She asked everyone to daven for him and gave his name. Within a minute, the reporter asked her to repeat the name as there were so many calls from people watching who didn’t catch it the first time.

A while ago, I noticed that a friend had begun to say Kaddish following Aleinu at each tefillah. He put me in touch with an organization that works to ensure that every chayal killed in action has someone to say Kaddish for him if there is no family member to do so. So now I, too, am saying Kaddish for a twenty-year-old soldier who fell in Gaza. I inquired where he is buried, and Ceil and I went to visit his kever in the small cemetery near his home in the Negev. His army friends had placed an IDF beret on the kever with the message “Shalom Chaver” written on it.

There have been so many funerals. Some neighbors lost their son in battle. As is the custom here, when they left for the levayah we lined up in the street outside the family’s home, holding Israeli flags aloft. Like many others, we visited a family whom we don’t know who were sitting shivah for their chayal son whom we had never met. 

Everyone volunteers to support the war in their own way. We bought a big pile of toys for evacuated children living in a Jerusalem hotel and the store owner insisted on giving us a discount so that he too could participate. Ceil is one of those who cooks meals for displaced families. As for me, I am busy fighting the fight on social media and sending off what I hope are reasoned letters of protest to the editors of the New York Times and other such publications whose reports so frequently seem one-sided. I have no illusions that my letters will be printed, but it’s something that I can do, and they have to be placed on notice, at least, that the actual truth is often the opposite of what they print.

This year, Ceil and I plan to remain in Jerusalem for Simchat Torah. No one has any idea how the day will shape up to be. All I do know is that the many thousands of relatives—fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters—of the more than 1,200 Israelis murdered on October 7 will be reliving their violent deaths on that day, together with all of Israel, and that the simchah is certain to be impacted. 

So, with all this—or rather, despite all this—how do I answer when I’m asked, “Mah shlomcha?” I say, “Etsli beseder—Personally, I’m fine,” and, like everyone else, I leave the rest unsaid. 

* This was written in early May. It is possible that much will have changed—hopefully for the better—by the time it is read.

David Olivestone is a member of the Jewish Action Editorial Committee. He and his wife Ceil made aliyah to Jerusalem in 2013.

This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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